by Jeannette Lofas, PhD, LCSW
Guard your sense of humor!
The step situation is filled with the unexpected. Sometimes we don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Try humor.
- Recognize that the stepfamily will not and cannot function as a biological family. Don’t try to place the expectations and dynamics of the biological family onto the stepfamily. That’s like trying to play chess using the rules of checkers. Stepfamilies are JUST that much more complex.
- Recognize the hard fact that the children are not yours and they never will be. We’re stepparents, not replacement parents. Mother and father (no matter what) afre sacred words.
- Super stepparenting doesn’t work. Go slow. Don’t come on too strong.
- House rules, roles, forms and norms, and discipline styles must be discussed and agreed to by the couple. The couple needs to immediately work out roles, rules responsibilities and respect. What are the children’s expected behaviors, manners and duties in this house – whether they are just visiting or living at home. For example, “we say the couple decides on the house rules, the biological parent disciplines, whenever possible, and the stepparent reminds, ‘in this house your dad/mom and I have decided that…in this house we...”
- Partnering. Know that developing couple strength and the ability to partner when only one partner is the parent is perhaps the most difficult and important step.
- Decide on your role, be a parent not a pal. Stepmothers are parents too. Know that the greatest enemy of a child’s well being is the lack of consistency and predictability. Divorced parents, without wanting to, bring this upon their children by trying to please, rather than being a parent. Guilt causes the parent to overindulge. The shame about the effects of divorce make a parent not a parent at all.
- Know that unrealistic expectations beget rejection and resentments. There is no model for the step relationship except for the wicked stepchild or the cruel stepmother of fairy tales.
- There are no ex-parents, only ex-spouses.
- Sexual bonds and blood bonds are in opposition and often in conflict. In the first family the couple “pulls together” for the sake of their child. In a stepfamily there often exists a conflict as to who comes first – my child or my sexual partner?
- What we call this the conflict of loyalties follows right on the heels of the opposing forces of blood and sex. However, it involves more of the extended stepfamily. The child often feels, “If I like my stepparent, then I am not loyal to my biological parent.” The conflict of loyalties goes all the way around in the nuclear and extended stepfamily.